So your song’s been picked for a political campaign

I am thrilled about Donald Trump’s presidential announcement. My entire life for the next 16 months will be built around the bonkers debates, campaign ads and speeches that are sure to come from the Republican candidate pool this year. DUDES, IT’S GONNA BE AMAZING.

And now let’s talk about campaign songs.

Donald Trump chose “Rockin’ in the Free World” because he doesn’t understand lyrics.

In case you missed the most AMAZING PRESIDENTIAL ANNOUNCEMENT EVAAARRR, Donald Trump chose to use “Rockin’ in the Free World” during his announcement, and Neil Young was all, “Hell no.” Most Republican candidates are greatly limited in what they can choose as a campaign song because most awesome songs are by filthy, heathen liberals. Toby Keith and Ted Nugent can only write SO many songs, y’all. But is Donald Trump even allowed to use a song like “Rockin’ in the Free World” without Neil Young’s approval?

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932: “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Solid choice.

Well, yes and no. The use of campaign songs exists in a slightly grey area, depending on how and where you use them, and interestingly enough, how much of a public figure the artists is. Technically, music that is used at political events is licensed in the same kind of way as music that’s played in restaurants or nightclubs or shops – the business buys the rights to use the music from one of the performing arts organizations (like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) which then pays royalties to the artist or whomever owns the song. But it becomes a bit tricky in that many times with political campaigns, the use of a particular song could imply that a specific artist actually endorses a specific candidate. Rarely do you go into a restaurant and hear Katy Perry in the background and think, “She must love this place.” But it’s not a stretch to think that when you hear “Rockin’ in the Free World” as the intro to a political rally that Neil Young is personally endorsing Donald Trump.

William Howard Taft, 1908: “Get on a Raft with Taft.” Written specifically for Taft (I’m assuming?).

In general, if a political campaign has gone through the proper channels to license and use a song and for whatever reasons the artist disagrees with the use, the artist can usually send a cease-and-desist letter and the politician usually complies because who wants bad PR when you’re running a campaign? But legally, if the political campaign has properly licensed the music, they don’t actually have to stop playing the song just because the artist doesn’t like them. Nancy and Ann Wilson of the band Heart protested when the John McCain campaign used “Barracuda” as Sarah Palin’s introduction at the 2008 Republican National Convention and asked the campaign to stop. The campaign responded that they had licensed the music legally and that Heart could suck it (in so many words).

Ross Perot, 1992: “Crazy.” Perot was nothing if not funny.

On the other hand, there are those politicians who just don’t legally license the music, and those cases are pretty cut-and-dry. In the past, a song that was played at an event generally stayed at that event – it wasn’t filmed and uploaded to YouTube or Tweeted about. So why bother paying for the song when the chances of the musician actually finding out you were illegally using it were slim? But hello Internet, and the fact that everything is so easily documented and disseminated and artists can actually keep track of their own music now. Cases-in-point: In 2008, Jackson Browne sued John McCain (this was prior to the “Barracuda” fiasco) for using “Running on Empty” for the music in an attack ad against Barack Obama. Then, in 2010, David Byrne of the band Talking Heads sued the governor of Florida for using “Road to Nowhere” in an attack ad against Marco Rubio. In both cases, the judges sided with the musician as neither campaign had properly licensed the music, both politicians had to pay settlements, and both actually had to make public apologies, which is kind of awesome and hilarious, because it’s a highlight in everyone’s day to make politicians apologize publicly for breaking the law. These cases were also kind of cool because it made politicians a lot more wary about just using a song without getting (and paying for) the proper approvals, which is kind of a no-brainer, especially from the people who are being elected to, you know, make laws and shit.

Bob Dole, 1996: a reworking of “Soul Man” called “Dole Man.” Sad, dorky and charming, all in one.

But assuming the politician has licensed the music properly, aside from sending a cease-and-desist letter, you’re kind of SOL just because they’re using your song and you don’t like them. Unless, of course, you’re someone like Tom Petty, in which case you are awesome. Tom Petty is a famous and successful musician who writes songs that lots of people know and love and/or involve the word “American.” So let’s say a couple of people – oh, just off the top of my head, let’s say George W. Bush in 2000 with the song “I Won’t Back Down”, or maybe Sarah Palin in 2012 with “American Girl” – have legally used your very iconic songs in political campaigns, but you don’t so much like them legally using your song. In both of these cases, Tom Petty’s lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter, but specifically argued that even though the campaigns had licensed the music, the use of such iconic songs implied that Petty endorsed both candidates (which he didn’t). It’s hard to say which way a judge would have gone had the disputes gone to court – it would be challenging to prove that using a Tom Petty song meant listeners would believe Tom Petty endorsed those candidates – but apparently the threat of legal action was enough as both campaigns stopped using the songs. For musicians at the level of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young, it’s not outrageous to see how the public could misconstrue the use of a campaign song as a public endorsement.

Ronald Reagan, 1984: “Born in the USA.” Possibly the most tone-deaf choice ever.

But if you’re not at the level of Bruce Springsteen? Good luck. Enjoy the royalties (if you happened to write the song yourself). Also, keep in mind all of my legal knowledge comes from one media law class I took in 2006 IN WHICH I RECEIVED AN “A” THANKYOUVERYMUCH, but for truly accurate legal advice, track down a real, live lawyer.

Ron Swanson

Political Apathy 2016!

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